dike repairs

Scott Gets Dike Money in Economic Development Bill

Dan Economy, Florida, Industry News Release

Jim Turner
News Service of Florida

dikeVisit Florida will get a boost in marketing dollars from the amount lawmakers approved last month.

Gov. Rick Scott will get $85 million to distribute — through a new fund — to help regional infrastructure projects aimed at economic-development.

And as part of a bill approved Friday at the end of the three-day special legislative session, the state will draw $50 million from reserves to help speed repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee, a priority of Scott.

“My goal is to get it done by 2022,” said Scott who noted commitments from President Donald Trump for funding the project.

Scott who feuded for months with House leaders over money for Visit Florida and economic-development efforts visited the House and Senate chambers as the bill (HB 1A) was approved. Scott stood at the podium near House Speaker Richard Corcoran as lawmakers voted on the bill.

“This is a real win for all the families in our state,” Scott said after the session.

The House and Senate agreed Friday to a series of last-day deals that included providing $76 million for Visit Florida, up from $25 million approved last month during the regular legislative session. The bill increased oversight of Visit Florida, a key issue for the House.

The bill also includes the new $85 million “Florida Job Growth Grant Fund,” which Scott can use for regional infrastructure projects and workforce-training programs.

The deal also included restored money for a number of higher-education projects that Scott vetoed last week. The projects were a priority of Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and Scott said Friday he plans to approve them.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of Lake Okeechobee dike repairs, but Scott has sought to speed up the project.

dikeWhile there is no commitment the state will be repaid for floating the $50 million into the project, legislators said they were optimistic Scott’s friendship with Trump will help.

“The good news is the governor is working with the president on being a partner with Florida going forward,” Negron said.

Negron sees the dike work as expanding on a bill (SB 10) that lawmakers passed during the regular session to create a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee. The reservoir is a key part of a plan to reduce polluted discharges from the lake that have been tied to toxic algae outbreaks throughout east and west coast waterways.

The Senate voted 34-1 to approve the new economic-development bill Friday, with St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes opposed. Brandes said while he supported the overall proposal, he couldn’t vote for the bill without more oversight of how economic-development money would be used — a position the Senate had taken earlier in the special session.

The House voted 105-4 to approve the final version of the bill.

A number of Democrats characterized the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund, which is to be located in the Department of Economic Opportunity, as a “slush fund.”

Rep. Kionne McGhee, a Miami Democrat who voted against the bill, referred to Scott’s expected 2018 run for U.S. Senate in calling the fund a “political action committee for the governor.”

The fund replaces economic-incentive money Scott had been unable to secure from the Legislature the past two years for the business-recruitment agency Enterprise Florida.

Rep. Paul Renner, a Palm Coast Republican who sponsored the bill, said the measure gives the governor “flexibility” in using the money.

“When we build a road,  a bridge, or extend an airfield in a community, there is inherent value for every company, small, medium and large,” Renner said. “That road can be traveled by every citizen in that community. It is also enduring. It lasts for a long-term period. It’s a long-term asset that community can enjoy.”

Senate leaders had been adamant they would stick to what they considered higher standards of oversight for the fund. But the bill doesn’t include a number of guidelines sought by the Senate, including performance conditions and spending benchmarks.

But the Senate was able to get a provision in the bill so that counties can use bed-tax dollars as a match for tourism-marketing money from Visit Florida, an issue that the House had opposed.

Visit Florida has faced intense scrutiny in recent months over issues such as its $11.6 million sponsorship of a cooking show hosted by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, a $1 million contract with rapper Pitbull, and ongoing sponsorship deals with London-based Fulham Football Club and an IMSA racing team.

The bill caps salaries and imposes travel restrictions on Visit Florida. Also, Visit Florida contracts valued at $500,000 will need to be posted online. Contracts over $750,000 will have to go before the Joint Legislative Budget Commission and could be voided within 14 days by the House speaker or Senate president.

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